Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Ombres preaches on the love that exceeds justice.
On hearing or reading certain gospel passages, we almost instinctively resist them. Or at least we need more convincing than usual that they actually mean what they seem to be saying. Today’s gospel is one of them – but, then, by using a parable Jesus could well have intended to startle us into the truth.
The parable moves in steps, and so should our reflections. It is a vivid story about a group of unemployed or casual agricultural labourers, and we wonder what the next step will be and how it will all end. What will be the final reckoning for each of them? Apart from the first group, the labourers were not promised a fixed payment. We are kept in suspense because the labourers are paid in the opposite order in which they were employed. Those who worked from the beginning of the day, who laboured longest, are paid last. Like them, we expect they will be paid more because they have worked more.
Let’s look at those steps in the parable, and see in them a movement from fairness to justice and then to love.
Even as children, we have a moral instinct to expect fairness. ‘It isn’t fair’ must be one of the earliest moral judgments we make. We can think of fairness as basically everyone being treated without favouritisms, and if there is favouritism then it is wrong and breeds resentment in others. So we are startled when the labourers who have toiled for less time get the same amount of pay as those who have worked more hours. Is this a case of favouritism or is the landowner acting on an arbitrary whim? Certainly the ones who had worked longest were not pleased; they grumbled at the landowner.
A next step then emerges. Fairness remains important, but our moral lives get more complex and we need to move into the sphere of justice. Justice involves giving each person their due; and calculating this is not as easy as being fair because it does involve considering which differences should lead to different treatment. There may be good reasons why special attention has to be paid to individual needs and circumstances. Still, here the labourers who worked longest were treated justly because they received their due as agreed in advance.
It is the landowner’s treatment of the labourers who worked less than a day that most startles us. So there is a last step – and this can be the hardest for us to take. Giving everyone their due is not all that morality involves. The labourers who worked less could in justice have been paid less. But what about love? Love is not unjust, but it can go beyond justice in giving someone what is not owed to them. This makes behaving in a loving manner much harder to calculate than acting fairly or justly. In fact, the language of calculation does not express well the generosity of love, especially towards those undeserving of it.
We need to think hard and gratefully about the landowner’s words: ‘Why be envious because I am good?’
The parable is therefore a realistic tale to be understood at its greatest depth. It is told to illustrate the kingdom of heaven. Notions of fairness and justice are definitely needed in the way we live and work, but not to the exclusion of love.
The parable does meet some resistance in us, does it not? The move towards love can be demanding, and we might be tempted to stay at the level of fairness and justice. Not that we should ignore or belittle this level, and looking round the world with its oppressions and poverty it is far from being realised. Love includes fairness and justice, but they cannot explain this parable or the kingdom of heaven, only love can.
As Christians we are called to imitate the foundational goodness and love shown to us by God in Christ when we did not deserve it. Sheer grace is amazing. In fact, we are to make our own this God-empowered love, and to act on it in practical ways.